Saturday 13th April 2013
Eight students, each of them keen to learn the secret art of using gravity as a plaything.
They’re all smiles.
During the Introduction I ask them why they want to throw themselves out of an aeroplane and the answers are typically varied. “A bit of excitement”, “I just want to see what it’s like”, “I saw it on TV”.
One guy answers “My wife bought me the course for my birthday”, and his response brings chuckles from the crowd. “You insured?” someone asks cheekily.
Lessons start with an explanation of the day’s activities; activities that will see them exhausted both mentally and physically by day’s end. We talk about the equipment – how it works, how it’s fitted, and how to look after it, and they try on a student rig and have a bit of a play with the handles, the first act on the road to muscle-memory.
The plane sits quietly near the runway, so we head over to talk about the ride to height – what to do and what not to do. Here they get to practice the exit they’ll perform from 14,000 feet, because when travelling through the air at 150kph the way they peel off the door determines how the rest of the skydive will go.
Back in the classroom the gang practices the freefall drills over and over again until they are performing them without prompting. They’ll need these skills as they plummet to earth during their 200kph gravity-fest.
I show them how the parachute opens, using my own rig as a demonstration tool. It’s here that they first see the technology that will be saving their lives when they jump. It’s here too where they realise that whatever happens, once they’ve thrown their pilot chute into to airflow their life is in their own hands.
The message is driven home during the emergency procedures practice, where they repeat again and again the procedure they’ll need to perform flawlessly if things don’t go exactly to plan. This is sobering stuff for many of them and the strain begins to show.
Some of the instructors who will be jumping with them come over for a sticky-beak while the students are yelling and pulling handles, and seeing this some of the less enthusiastic amongst the group pick up their game. None of them wants to look like they can’t do the job so they try to impress.
Out on the drop zone we watch a planeload of jumpers coming in to land. Canopy follows canopy in a colourful cascade that terminates on the ground, and as I scan their faces I can see it in their eyes – they’re imagining themselves doing the same thing.
Parachute Landing Roll practice ends the formal course content, but it’s vital training if you’re going to survive in this business. Not many things in life are certain, but you can guarantee that if you throw yourself at the ground from a great height you will hit it. How hard is up to you, so knowing how to distribute the impact can not only save a bruised ego but also a bruised body.
Once we’ve completed the theory and practical part of the course it’s time for their written exam, an exam on which they’ll need to score 100% to be able to jump. They burrow down and start scribbling.
An hour or so later I collect the exam papers, and after a long day of intense training we’re done.
After dinner, as has become usual for me on these courses, I stay up late marking their papers, pleased that most of them scored well. It’s gratifying to see test results like this, and it means there’ll be less retraining tomorrow and more jumping.
Sunday 14th April 2013
A busy day.
The students go into the training harnesses to be given a thorough workout as malfunction scenarios are shown to them. They must be able to perform the emergency procedure perfectly if they are to be allowed to jump as an AFF student.
Once again they do very well, and I start to believe everyone is going to have a great jump.
The call comes from manifest.
The first student is geared up and my fellow instructor and I lead him to the plane. He’s nervous and trying not to show it, but his face tells a different story.
For this sortie I’m designated Jump Master 2, or JM2, so I’ll be on the student’s left side for the jump.
In the plane he goes quiet, deep in thought about the jump ahead. To ease his concerns I ask him to run through the jump in his mind. Mental rehearsal is a wonderfully confidence-inspiring tool and has been shown scientifically to improve performance, especially when you picture a perfect skydive.
Soon the door’s open and the cool air fills the cabin.
Confidently he sets up in the door and begins the exit count, sticking to the plan we’ve practiced many times, and with this his body follows his verbal commands. The launch into freefall is smooth, and we’re soon at terminal velocity, gobbling up altitude with a vengeance. He’s doing well with his allotted tasks and checking his altimeter often, giving us instructors an easy ride. We like that – lazy bastards that we are.
The occasional signal prompts him to make minor adjustments to his body position. Because stability is everything in this game we try to correct any asymmetry before it develops.
As deployment height approaches we ready ourselves for the upcoming action. Even though there’s actually plenty of time, relatively speaking, this is where students often rush things in an effort to get their parachute out; unfortunately being fast isn’t necessarily being safe in this business, so we’re both on high alert in case we’re needed to help out.
At 5,500 feet he pokes his tongue out at me; not to be rude but to signal he thinks it’s time to deploy. You can’t talk in freefall, so I tell him I agree that it’s time by poking my tongue back at him. He does the same towards JM1 and once again receives confirmation.
He rushes the first attempt at finding his main handle and fumbles, but on his second attempt he grips it strongly and launches it into the streaming air. That’s the cue for JM1 to escape into some clear airspace below, so he turns and tracks away quickly.
I hang around just long enough to see the deployment bag lift clear of the container. It goes, and so do I, and now the student’s on his own until the canopy is fully open and flying straight. Once the student has the canopy under control the Target Assistant or TA will provide help in flying to the ground.
The next time we see him he’s walking into the packing shed clutching 260 square feet of life-saving nylon and sporting a smile bigger than his face should be able to hold. There’s no doubt… he’s on a high.
We have a chat with him about his performance, but soon it’s back to work, the jumps continuing with load after load of both eager pupils and experienced jumpers being ferried into the blue. Our workplace is over four kilometres above our heads and there’s a brilliant view from the office windows.
As the day comes to an end we’ve succeeded in helping all eight students through their first jump, and as the drop zone empties I can reflect on a great weekend.
Yesterday they were eight nervous people trying to come to grips with the tasks ahead.
Today they are skydivers.